It’s official — Just Kids Early Childhood Learning Center, a provider of preschool programs in many school districts throughout Long Island, will be moving into the New Suffolk School, with a focus on giving kids with autism a safe place to begin their education.

Voters in this small school district, which has faced dwindling enrollment in recent years, agreed in a referendum earlier this year to become a “non-instructional school district,” sending students who live in New Suffolk to the Southold School District, where high school students living in New Suffolk already attend classes.

As two students graduate from the elementary school this month and a family is moving out of the district, the school, which had just seven students this year, would have had just two students next school year if it had continued to operate, said School Board President Lisa Zissel at the board’s May 14 meeting. The board had voted to sign a lease with Just Kids between its April and May meetings, after authorizing the signature in April.

“It’s the perfect building for the children we hope will attend. When you walk in, it feels like a hug,” said Just Kids Executive Director Steven Held in an interview with The Beacon

He said there is a need for services for preschool students with autism on the East End.

“Many children unfortunately find themselves without early intervention services, but if you can work with children and families from birth to age five, the human mind is amazing,” he added. “This is a time when they will learn more than they will for the rest of their lives.”

School Board member Deborah Carroll said at the New Suffolk Civic Association’s (NSCA) annual meeting, held in the three-room school house June 1, that Just Kids plans to use all three classrooms in the school, with one classroom dedicated to students ages 4 through 6, some of whom are autistic, and two pre-K classrooms.

Mr. Held said the classroom programs will be determined by when the elementary-aged programming is approved by the New York State Department of Education. The ultimate goal, he said, would be to provide services for autistic students in grades K through 3, to provide them with an educational foundation before they are integrated back into classrooms in their home districts. The Pre-K program, he said, could start before Just Kids receives approval for the program for older students.

“They’re excited to be in an area that’s quiet, peaceful and off the beaten path,” said Ms. Zissel. 

The four-year lease with Just Kids includes just the school property, which will still be available when school isn’t in session for community events, said Ms. Zissel at NSCA’s annual meeting. Students will be bussed to the school, though teachers would park there. The lease does not include the ballfield owned by the district, which is on a separate lot, but it does include the playground behind the school. She added that the school will hold a meeting with Just Kids and the community at the end of the first year of the lease to go over how the first year went and see if any changes need to be made.

The school board has been advised to wait on applying for historic landmark status for the building until after it makes any upgrades necessary to continue to use the building in the coming year. Just Kids has agreed to do work to make the building ADA compliant.

Ms. Zissel added that the district made its two teachers aware last year that the school could close, and both have been able to find other employment.

Mr. Held will be in attendance to answer the community’s questions at the next school board meeting on Monday, June 10 at 7 p.m., at the school or via Google Meet (visit www.newsuffolkschool.com/events for more info)

The lease was signed after the school’s 2024-2025 budget had to be sent to New York State, and the income from the lease is not included in the budget passed unanimously by voters in May. Though Ms. Zissel declined to comment on the amount of the lease, she did say it was “about two tuition’s worth.” The district is paying Southold tuition of $23,615 per year for each student to attend there. The Beacon’s FOIL request for a copy of the lease is pending.

Ms. Carroll is also coordinating a community-wide celebration of the school’s history and what will perhaps be its last graduating class, to be held on Friday, June 14 from 4 to 6 p.m. She’s asking community members to send her photos for a slideshow at deborahcarroll@newsuffolkschool.com

“We all know this is a bittersweet moment,” said Ms. Zissel. “Everyone’s invited. Please do come.”


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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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